awe-inspiring stories of the Army medics


Dont know if this has been posted already, but it made me extremely humble at the courage of the Med boys & girls doing a tough job without question day in day out - a very tough article to read (apologies for posting it in its fullness, but im a technophobe - couldnt do the linky thing):

From the Daily Mail on-line Today.

The quiet heroes: The awe-inspiring stories of the Army medics who have saved countless lives in recent British wars

By John Nichol and Tony Rennell
Last updated at 9:29 AM on 10th October 2009

No one writes about them. Their deeds go unsung. Which is why, for this gripping series, two writers decided to track down the awe-inspiring stories of the Army medics who have saved countless lives in recent British wars.

They are a special breed of soldier - the medics who go selflessly into the heart of battle and risk their own lives to save others.

Here, in the first part of a gripping series, we reveal the astonishingly heroic actions of two such medics and the men they fought to save, despite a horrifying lack of equipment and communication, in the scorching heat of the Afghan desert three years ago...

He came haring down the hill and out onto the valley floor. From an observation post overlooking the strategic Kajaki Dam in southern Afghanistan, Lance Corporal Stuart Hale had spotted Taliban insurgents and was running fast at the head of his patrol to reach a point where he could pick them off with his rifle.

Without a pause in his stride, he stretched out his leg to hurdle a dry riverbed. He never heard the blast.

'As my right foot touched the ground, I fell, as if I'd stood on a banana skin,' said Hale. In this matter-of-fact manner, the 3 Para soldier was maimed for life.
The British Army Medical Emergency Response team tend to an injured soldier and fly him to Camp Bastion in Helmand Province, Southern Afghanistan

The British Army Medical Emergency Response team tend to an injured soldier and fly him to Camp Bastion in Helmand Province, Southern Afghanistan

'I looked down and saw the stump, which was all that remained of my leg.'

The bottom half had been sheared off. Shrapnel had exploded into his calf. The bone was broken and splayed out at an impossible angle. 'Only then did I realise I'd stood on a mine.'

Hale lay against the bank of the dried-up riverbed, or wadi, surveying the gore of his own lacerated limb and screaming for help. One of his patrol instinctively rushed to his side and plunged a morphine syringe into his flesh.

There was a rush of relief through his system. But what Hale really needed was emergency treatment from an expert if, on that day in September 2006, his life wasn't to drain away on that bleak Afghanistan plain.

That help was quickly on its way. Up in another hill-top observation post, Paul 'Tug' Hartley was roused from his slumbers by an urgent shout. 'We've got an incident, Tug. There's a man down. Let's go!'

Hartley, a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps on attachment to the Paras, pulled on his shorts and boots and grabbed the 'weapon' with which he waged his war - a rucksack of life-saving medical equipment.

He was a medic, one of a special breed of soldiers whose job requires a unique type of courage. Their skills are often taken for granted, until the life-or-death moment when they are called on to go selflessly into the heart of battle, to risk their own lives for others. This was one of those moments.

He followed his platoon commander, Corporal Mark Wright, on a mad chase down rocks and scree, cursing himself for not being fitter. The only thought in his head was that 'mates of mine are going to die if I can't get to them quickly enough'.

In the wadi ahead, he could see Hale lying out in the open. Anxious soldiers were gathered around him, some visibly upset at the sight of his injuries.

Hartley's arrival with his medical kit calmed everyone. It was always like that when a medic appeared on a battle scene, in this and every war. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

The 'Doc' was here, the miracle worker. This puppy-like trust in their healing powers was an extra burden all medics carried. Hartley examined Hale's leg, which was shredded from the knee down. Blood was oozing from the rags of a makeshift tourniquet.

He pulled a proper tourniqet from his pack, slipped the loop round the leg and then ratcheted it until the flow of blood slowed. He slotted a needle into Hale's arm and began an intravenous drip of saline to make up for lost fluid.

Hale was quiet now, the physical shock of the injury combining with more doses of morphine to chill him out. The crisis seemed to have passed. For the stump to be properly treated, he needed to get as quickly as possible to a surgeon at the main British Army hospital at Camp Bastion 50 miles away.

But this was not going to be easy. The hidden device that had felled him was not a single stray. Looking around, Hartley saw the tops of more mines protruding from the earth.

The British Army hospital in Camp Bastion, run by the United Kingdom Joint Force Medical Group, provides the medical cover for all ISAF personnel operating in Helmand Province

The British Army hospital in Camp Bastion, run by the United Kingdom Joint Force Medical Group, provides the medical cover for all ISAF personnel operating in Helmand Province

They were in a minefield - laid, they were to discover, not by the Taliban but by the Soviet army during its occupation of Afghanistan 25 years earlier. The Brits hadn't known it was there.

And minefields tend not to reveal all their secrets in one go.

A rescue team was now down on the ground carefully plotting a route to safe ground a dozen or so yards away, to where a helicopter could come and take Hale away.

With no specialist detection equipment, they lay flat on their belt buckles and inched their way forward, prodding the ground ahead with their bayonets. It was a process fraught with danger, but fortunately they were close to the edge - or so they thought - and it didn't take long to mark out a safe exit line.

Hale was lifted on to a stretcher and, with a bearer at each corner and Hartley at the rear, he was ferried gingerly to high ground. Corporal Stuart Pearson was carefully following the footsteps of the stretcher party when a loud explosion sent him ripping though the air. He sat where he fell, his left leg blasted off below the knee. 'Not me!' he remembered thinking. 'Why me?'

As he gave vent to unimaginable pain, the rest of the platoon froze in their tracks.

They'd believed they were easing out of the minefield but, clearly, they were still in the thick of it.

It was a miracle that more mines hadn't been triggered. A bigger miracle would be if they emerged with no more casualties. As it was, they felt as if they were in a horror film, where no one was safe and one by one they would fall to the mad axe-man.

Another medic, Alex Craig, was quickly at Pearson's side. Hartley stood up to go forward and help him. A shout stopped him. 'Don't you effing move,' Craig called out.
Hartley did as he was told. The realisation hit him that, just seconds before, he had walked along that very stretch of ground behind Hale's stretcher. How had he missed the mine?

He could see the light draining from their eyes

Were there more? Certainly. Was anywhere safe? Not even the spot where he was standing.

What they needed desperately now was the helicopter they had summoned to arrive. The minutes dragged by, an eternity of tension and a growing sense of isolation. Ears strained for the roar of engines.

The best part of an hour passed, and suddenly there it was, a giant British Chinook hovering noisily overhead. At last, those trapped on the ground dared to think they were safe.

Hartley looked up and waited for the cable to drop so he could hook on his casualties and have them winched up. No cable came.

Instead, the Chinook came lower and lower, trying, the startled men below suddenly realised, to land. It was madness! In a minefield!

Hartley was furious. 'We'd radioed requesting a small helicopter with a winch, and they sent a huge Chinook without one.'

Corporal Wright, who was in charge on the ground, was going ballistic, frantically trying to wave the helicopter away, shouting into his radio to those back at base to get the bloody thing out of there.

It was too late. The helicopter came relentlessly on, the down-draught threatening to pile pressure on those hair-trigger plates below the surface.

Its wheels touched down, but then those on board must have grasped what was happening because it took off again, prompting another surge of air on the fragile ground below.

Wright and Craig stooped down over Pearson to shelter him from the wind.

There was a bright flash and another mine detonated, exploding directly against the crouching Wright's body.

Craig collapsed, too, choking and spluttering, blood draining from deep chest wounds.

'My right side felt as if it was on fire,' he said. 'One of my lungs had collapsed and was filling with blood. I was in a bad way, and I remember lying back and thinking, yeah, that's now the third mine that's gone off. How many more, I wonder.'

As the dust cleared, Hartley surveyed a scene of unimaginable chaos. Now there were four casualties, all with devastating injuries. And three of them were lying where they had fallen, deep inside the minefield, out of reach.

He could see Wright 30ft away, slumped on the ground, his life-blood oozing away. 'That's when I made my mind up that I had to do something.'

British troops conduct IED (improvised explosive device) training in dusty conditions at Camp Bastion, Helmand. IEDs have become the scourge of the British forces in Helmand

British troops conduct IED (improvised explosive device) training in dusty conditions at Camp Bastion, Helmand. IEDs have become the scourge of the British forces in Helmand

'I was the medic. I was the one expected to do something. It was a very conscious decision. I knew the danger but I had to do it,' said 'Tug'.

He picked up his kit and slung it a yard into the minefield. When it didn't go bang, he jumped on to it, picked it up from under his feet, threw it another yard, jumped again, and so on, like a frog leaping along a row of lily pads.

He was halfway across to Wright 'when I looked back to where I'd come from and where I was going, and I realised it was my son's first birthday tomorrow. What was I doing here!'

He had another couple of throws to go to reach the corporal when there was another explosion. One of the other men standing in the minefield, Andy Barlow, had reached down to pick up a bottle of water, shifted his weight slightly, boom!

The already badly wounded Wright and Pearson were also caught in this new blast. Another soldier, Dave Prosser, standing nearby and cutting up shirts to make tourniquets, was struck in the chest by shrapnel and stones. So, too, was Hartley, perched on his backpack.

'The explosion lifted me off the ground and dumped me on my backside. I couldn't breathe. I couldn't hear. I believed I was dead,' he said.

'There was all this screaming and shouting going on, and blokes with limbs blown off. I realised I hadn't died. but I was going to, that we all were.

'There were so many casualties, and none of us were coming back from this, and all I could do was make everyone as comfortable as possible until the end came.

'So I just walked the last few steps over to Mark, thinking whatever's going to happen is going to happen and I can't do anything to stop it.'

His face pepper-potted with shrapnel, and his chest burned black by the blast from the mine, Hartley, a casualty himself now, gathered his three wounded comrades around him. Their screams pierced the silence of the remote valley. The sun beat down mercilessly.

His body was burned black by the blast

On the floor of that dried-up wadi, he arranged them in a triangle, their heads and feet touching each other. In this position, he could treat them all without having to move - without having to risk triggering another deadly explosion.

He dosed Barlow and Pearson with morphine. They were conscious and he showed them how to keep each other topped up. Giving them something to do would keep them alert.

But his bigger concern was for Corporal Wright, the popular and highly-regarded platoon commander and an old mate of Hartley's. He was still untreated from the earlier blast.

Hartley could see that the corporal's right arm had gone and he ratcheted on a tourniquet to try to stop the catastrophic bleeding from the stump.

He packed bandages into the wound in Wright's chest. His face was smashed and there was a gaping hole in his neck. He had a raging thirst and Hartley gently slopped water into his mouth, only to see it seep out through his neck.

Hartley glanced up from Wright and over at the other two. To his horror, they were sinking fast. He could see the light draining from their eyes. He chatted away, trying to raise their spirits.

'I was just being their mum really,' he recalled. But in his heart he believed he was doing little more than delaying the inevitable. They were going to die.

'I told the lads that everything was going to be all right, but I didn't really believe it.'

He soothed an increasingly distraught Barlow, now in great pain because the morphine wasn't working on him. The more the soldier thrashed about, the faster his heart beat and the more he bled.

Pearson, on the other hand, was slipping in and out of consciousness. He had to be kept from falling into a sleep that could all too soon be permanent.

And so they stayed in their tight huddle, the medic and his trio of casualties, in the middle of that minefield, as if in their own private prison.

A line of soldiers stood just yards away at the edge, helpless, ordered not to go in and risk more detonations, more casualties, more lost limbs.

Hartley sympathised with the watching soldiers, helpless spectators in this life-and-death drama playing out in the Afghan desert. 'It felt strange, us lying there in the open and them so near and yet so far away.

'It must have been dreadful just looking down at your mates and not being able to do anything to save them.'
Regimental Medical officers for The Light Dragoons in the desert tent that is the front line medical unit for forces injured in battle during operation Panther Claw earlier this year

Regimental Medical officers for The Light Dragoons in the desert tent that is the front line medical unit for forces injured in battle during operation Panther Claw earlier this year

Another helicopter was supposed to be on its way. But when would it get there? And would it be in time?

Fifteen minutes, Hartley was told, it'll be here in 15 minutes. But when he asked again, it was still another 15, and then another after that. 'Tell the pilot to look out for a fat, sunburned bloke in blue shorts,' he called to the soldiers outside the minefield. 'That'll be me!'

Time lost any meaning. He looked at his watch, thinking an eternity had passed, to find only two minutes had elapsed. He looked again and saw that a whole hour had gone by.

He felt himself slipping away, the pain of his heat-seared lungs, sunstroke, dehydration and sheer exhaustion all urging his body to seek release in sleep.

It was now three hours since the mine had hit Mark Wright, and sixanda-half since Stu Hale - still waiting to be evacuated - had first stepped into the minefield and lost his leg.

What kept the badly-wounded Hale going was the thought of his pregnant wife, Shannon. He wanted the baby she was carrying to be called Alex or Sophia.

If he died, he pleaded in a moment of despair, would someone, anyone, please make sure this last request of his was fulfilled.

'You can name the baby yourself, you muppet,' he was unceremoniously told, 'when you get home.'

Suddenly, for the first time, that prospect seemed a real possibility. An American Black Hawk helicopter was overhead. One had been requested by the British commanders in Bastion as soon as the emergency was declared, but none was immediately available.

To their frustration, this request was queried by higher authority. Was it really necessary? And when they had insisted, the matter was referred up to Nato level for approval. The upper-echelon delay was disastrous down on the ground.

But now, at last, in a whirlwind of noise and fuel fumes, the American cavalry arrived.

'They're here!' Hartley called to his triangle of casualties, and he could see the colour and the hope come flooding back into their faces.

All except Wright. The arrival of what he had been waiting for broke whatever spell of unreality he'd been lost in.

'For the first time, he began to talk about dying. He wanted me to tell his missus he loved her and to let his mum and dad know he'd been a good soldier,' said Hartley.

'I told him everything was going to be all right and I promised to see him back at Camp Bastion. I promised.'

In a whirlwind of noise and fuel fumes, the American cavalry arrived

From out of the hovering helicopter, the American rescue crew dropped down with a metal stretcher, clipped in Hale and Barlow and whisked them away.

They were back minutes later for Wright, then again for Pearson, Prosser and, finally, Hartley.

All were landed beyond the minefield and transferred to a waiting Chinook to be flown to Bastion.

There, Hartley limped and wheezed his way off the helicopter and into the hospital.

Against all his earlier expectations, he was alive. But the news that greeted him was bad. One of the casualties of the Kajaki minefield had not made it. Wright was dead.

The blood loss had been too much and in the helicopter his heart had stopped.

Hartley was mortified.

'I was sick about him dying. I'd known him for years, ever since we were in Iraq. He was an awesome bloke, the bravest man I ever knew.'

'Tug' had one more duty to perform. 'I was down for immediate evacuation to England for treatment, but I insisted on staying for the ramp parade when Mark's body was repatriated. I went into the ambulance where his coffin was waiting to be slow-marched on to the plane. I had promised him I would see him again, and I did. I just wish it hadn't had to be like that.'

Hale, the minefield's first victim, had no memory of leaving Afghanistan. It was not until he was in Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham that he began to come out of his coma, a full five days later. Shannon sat beside him. The news that he had lost a leg was shattering for her.

'Unless you're in the military, you can never really understand how awful the loss of a limb is to a fit young career soldier,' she said.

When she first saw him, unconscious and wired up to a life-support system, her heart almost broke. 'Where his leg should have been, there was just a sheet.

'His other leg was badly injured, too, and the doctors didn't know if they could save it. He was millimetres away from losing the tendon that controls the lower leg. If that had gone, he would have been a double amputee.

'There were all these brave young men in Selly Oak who'd lost limbs. That's the cream of our youth, all at the peak of their physical fitness and now just broken.'

Life got better for Hale, as did his shattered body. His baby was born and he was there to name her Sophia. With astonishing determination, he was soon up on a prosthetic leg and getting around with a walking stick. Not long after, he was in the gym. He stayed in the Army and returned to Afghanistan with 3 Para as an Intelligence officer.
Dust covered equipment in the desert tent that is the front line medical unit for forces injured in battle during operation Panther Claw which was launched against the Taliban earlier this year

Dust covered equipment in the desert tent that is the front line medical unit for forces injured in battle during operation Panther Claw which was launched against the Taliban earlier this year

The outcome for medic 'Tug' Hartley, however, was not so heartening. He came out of the Kajaki minefield relatively unscathed. The courage and skill he showed were recognised with a George Medal, personally presented to him by the Queen.

But the minefield was never truly out of him. Back home, he was a changed man. He drank too much and felt 'this unbelievable anger'. He had all the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder - but with an edge unique to medics.

For them, suppressing their emotions is vital if they are to do their job properly. On the battlefield, they cannot give in to anger and aggression.

They have to confront the pain and the gore, cradling the frightened and the dying, while cursing their own inability to perform the hoped-for miracles. The feelings they hide come back to haunt them. 'I used to imagine all my friends getting injured and me not being able to help them,' said Hartley.

Eventually, he was medically discharged from the Army.

The minefield incident showed British soldiers and the medics responsible for their welfare in a truly glorious light - if raw bravery and the willingness to risk all for one's comrades are the only measures.

But it was also a series of preventable disasters by those who send young men under-equipped to fight a shoestring war whose military objectives are hard to fathom.

The minefield should have been marked on the maps. The Chinooks should have had winches.

As for Wright, the line put out by the Ministry of Defence was that his injuries were so severe that he would have died anyway. The facts suggest otherwise. He might well have survived had it not taken so long to get him to hospital.

The men on the ground that day did their duty and more. It was others who let them down. In the minefield, all the deficiencies of the fight in Afghanistan were exposed, at a fearful human cost - one man dead, six seriously wounded, three limbs lost, nothing gained.

When Tony Blair took Britain to war, he spoke gravely of the 'blood price' the nation must pay. Those who did the paying in lost lives, lost limbs and shattered minds may wonder whether they were grievously short-changed in this transaction.

Extracted from MEDIC: SAVING LIVES FROM DUNKIRK TO AFGHANISTAN by John Nichol and Tony Rennell, to be published by Viking on October 29 at £20. ©John Nichol and Tony Rennell 2009. To order a copy at £18 (p&p free), call 0845 155 0720.


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